May 9, the fiftieth anniversary of the birth control pill’s approval, is being celebrated in the mainstream media by both feminists and environmentalists enamored of zero population growth. The pill is often considered the root cause of the sexual revolution, with some opining that, but for the pill, much of the sexual anarchy of the last forty years might have been avoided. But is this true, or did the pill merely accelerate moral and sexual trends already present in society?
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) is sometimes seen as the opening salvo of the sexual revolution. Griswold established a constitutional “right to privacy” through Justice Douglas’ famous discernments of “emanations and penumbras” supporting privacy, found in other constitutional guarantees. Griswold’s principal effect went beyond contraceptives, undermining the long-standing principle of legitimate societal interest in regulating sexual behavior. Without Griswold, Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas would not have been possible.
But Griswold wasn't about the pill—it was about condoms. Condoms and other barrier methods would share many of the pill’s consequences, albeit less conveniently. And the ruling in Griswold itself was not so much a radical break with the past as it was the culmination of a process that began with the nation’s experience of World War II.
Because of its scope and intensity, World War II shattered an existing moral consensus, creating a socially unstable situation in which “ordinary” morality was jettisoned. People lived very intensely and with the knowledge that everything, including life itself, was transient. The typical American serviceman in World War II had four sex partners, not counting prostitutes. Venereal disease rates for U.S. servicemen in Europe and Australia reached epidemic proportions that eventually required the military to license and regulate brothels. As Kipling wrote, “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints”.
While soldiers were fornicating their way across Europe and women on the home front were in contact with men on the war assembly lines, the number of “Dear John” letters received at the front and in the POW cages constituted a real threat to morale. One received in 1944 by a POW in Stalag Luft VII read: “Dear John, I hope you are open-minded, because I just had a baby. His father is a wonderful guy, and he has enclosed some cigars for you”. Of course, most men and women were not promiscuous during the war—just as most men and women today are not—but enough were to have a lasting impact.
After the war, everything was supposed to return to normal, but of course, it did not, and many trends conspired to ensure that they would not, including unprecedented prosperity, social and physical mobility—which broke down traditional ties of family and community, a burning resentment of authority among servicemen and a more relaxed attitude toward sex, growing out of the wartime experience.
For a generation that grew up in uniform, hypocrisy was not seen as something necessary for the smooth running of society. If the boomers grew up rebels, it’s because their parents encouraged rebellion even while outwardly conforming to social norms themselves. Everybody liked sex, and many broke sexual barriers, though still exercising discretion and obedience to form. But, looking at the divorce rates between the late forties to the mid-sixties, one can already see the incipient breakdown of marriage owing, in part, to hasty wartime marriages combined with the stress of servicemen reintegrating into civilian society. One prominent feature of many marriages then was the pressure on men to marry women whom they impregnated, resulting in shotgun weddings and “premature” births. Fortunately, it was at a time when a man just out of high school could get a high-paying, semi-skilled job with union protection. It would be safe to wager, though, that many of those marriages collapsed once their children were grown.
Many of the behaviors predisposed by the pill were already common, albeit covert, features of American life once the pill became available. The pill added fuel to a smoldering fire; it didn't start the blaze, but it certainly accelerated it and ensured its spread. The greatest damage done by the pill has been to women. It shifted the onus for avoiding pregnancy to women, absolving men of responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, which, in essence, made sex into a casual activity. Men no longer had to marry the women they impregnated, which, in turn, made legalized abortion inevitable, again leaving women to bear the psychological and moral consequences. So as we mark the anniversary of the pill, we should spend more time trying to understand the social forces that caused us to react to the pill as we did, allowing us to discard a long-standing moral consensus, leaving only sexual chaos and uncertainty.
Stuart Koehl is a military historian and writer living in Northern Virginia.